Presenting a precise history of sport in ancient Iran proves to be a challenge, given the disappearance of many sources over the centuries, especially during the desired or accidental destruction of many libraries and valuable works.


Presenting a precise history of sport in ancient Iran proves to be a challenge, given the disappearance of many sources over the centuries, especially during the desired or accidental destruction of many libraries and valuable works. However, we have some sources such as the Avesta, various tablets and bas-reliefs old, as well as some literary works or testimony of Greek authors like Xenophon. These sources tell us that more than two millennia ago, the Iranians practiced running, wrestling, javelin throwing, horse riding, but also archery or navigation. They also mention that Iran has very early placed great importance on sport and physical education in general education, particularly in order to strengthen the potential of its armed forces. Herodotus thus evokes this aspect of Iranian culture, writing: "From five to twenty years, Iranians learn three things: 1. Riding, 2. Archery, 3. Honesty." Several centuries later, Strabon in the 1st century BC. AD or Athenaeus in the second century also evoke the central place of sport in the culture of Persia.

With the arrival of the Parthians in power, sport and the exaltation of the virtues of the body becomes inseparable from the concept of "pahlavan" or "qahreman" (champion, hero), gradually transforming the ancient sport (varzesh-e bastani) in true "heroic sport" (varzesh-e pahlavani). Sport will now be an integral part of the princely education and important figures of the court, while aiming to inculcate very early the chivalrous values ​​of heroism and courage. Physical education is also closely linked to military training, and it sometimes seems anachronistic to speak of "sport" which was not generally considered an activity independent of the army and the training of soldiers, although some Racing activities and competitions were organized at a very early stage.

One of the ancient and precise sources at our disposal is a work written by Ctesias, Greek physician of the court of the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II, who wrote a book called Persica on his return to Greece in the fourth century BC. J.-C in which it evokes in particular the history of ancient Persia and the importance given to physical education. In his Education of Cyrus, Xenophon discusses the different physical education programs of the people of the court: middle-aged children and men had to do physical exercises in the morning, the elderly who could on particular days, while the young men were constantly invited to develop their physical faculties: they began their exercises at dawn with running and throwing stones or javelins, then they had to walk very long distances. strong heat or cross rivers without wetting their weapons. The acquisition of a high level in disciplines such as horse riding or shooting was part of the general education of children of the court of the time. During the Median and Achaemenid dynasties, the physical education of young men as well as the training of the use of weapons through disciplines such as archery, chowgan or even javelin throwing occupied a central place.

Thus, archery was very early considered a central discipline with a strong both military and symbolic importance. As such, the most famous archer of ancient Iran is undoubtedly the legendary character of Arash. The legend of "Arash-e Kamangir" is particularly evoked in the Avesta as well as in the Shahnameh several times, according to which his famous shooting determined the borders of Iran and Touran.

The historical records of the Achaemenid era reporting the conquests of Cyrus evoke the presence of many archers among the troops of the time, especially in the wars against the Medes. In his description of Cyrus's cavalry, Xenophon also mentions the presence of camels each riding two archers. The existence of coins on which was represented an archer ready to shoot also underlines the importance of this discipline. We can also observe archers on the frescoes of Persepolis, while on one of the bas reliefs of Naghsh-e Rostam, it is mentioned that Darius was a good horseman and archer shooting with great dexterity both on foot and horse. Before the Achaemenids, in the 7th century BC BC, the Median king Cyaxare, military genius of his time, after a first defeat against the Assyrian Empire, remains known to have reorganized the army of the time having then allowed to defeat Assyria - with the help of the Babylonians - and extend his empire to the west considerably. He insisted that his troops should receive excellent training in the field of archery, handling of the sword and the javelin. Archery kept its importance under the following dynasties, the official symbol of the Parthian Empire being an arrow. In Sassanid times, archery was still considered one of the most important weapons and a means of hunting.

Horse and horse riding have also taken center stage in Iran very early. From the fourth century BC J .- C, Greek authors like Xenophon praised the address and the equestrian feats of the Persians. The chowgan or polo is one of the examples of the use of horses not only for military maneuvers, but also in the context of a sports competition. The use of tanks to move and the organization of races were also common during the reign of the Achaemenids. In Anabase, Xenophon thus evokes the presence of chariot races in the time of Cyrus, after which he was handed over to the winners a fat cow that they sacrificed and with whom they organized a grand banquet. One of the Achaemenid seals also shows Darius I driving a chariot pulled by two horses who trample on a lion just killed, highlighting the power of the ruler. Under the Parthian Empire, tanks were primarily used to transport sovereigns and women of the court and was therefore more of a luxury item than a tool of war and combat. Conversely, the Sassanids used it largely as a military tool. The tanks seem to have almost disappeared from the armies after the Arab invasion.
The appearance of varzesh-e pahlavani

In the 3rd century BC AD, the arrival of the Parthians in power marks the appearance of the figure of "pahlavan" and the concept of "varzesh-e pahlavani", that is to say sport athletes or literally "hero" ". Physical education becomes inseparable from the acquisition of certain ethical and spiritual values ​​and is inspired by Mithraic rituals. At this time, the development of disciplines such as athletics and wrestling took place in parallel with the establishment of a "chivalrous spirit", associated with a whole set of concepts and heroic figures such as that of the "Pahlavan" (sometimes translated as "heroes" or "priests") or "qahreman" ("hero", "champion"), associated with the notions of "brave" and "valiant" (gow, gord, mard, delavar ), or "intrepid" (delir), "noble and generous" (javanmard), "magnanimous" (rad, radmard ...), "man of noble and free character" (azadeh, azadmard), "audacious" or "lion's heart" (shirdel, shirguir), etc. These notions are rooted in a whole set of legends and myths of the hero as presented in particular in the Shahnameh; Rostam constituting one of these ideals-types of "brave" fighting against the forces of evil.

The historical context and the Iranian resistance opposed to many invaders were thus accompanied by the constitution of the figure of the hero combining skill and physical strength with a morality, an ethics, and a particular worldview. The very constitution of sports infrastructures and their evolution have remained intimately linked to the evolution of Iran's history: during attacks and invasions, the Iranians began to build sports halls hidden in basements in which they were buried. were driving and nourishing the ideals of revenge, courage and national independence. These secret rooms will later become the famous "zurkhaneh" or "houses of force".

In the following centuries, the notion of "heroic sport" and the chivalrous hero ready to do anything to defend his homeland will gradually lose its meaning and will be reduced to its only dimension of physical training. It will however know a certain revival under the Safavid empire: Shiism having become religion of State, the notion of "pahlavan" will be enriched of the spiritual ethics of the Shiism and reconnect with certain figures of the past and the old mythology, while being reinterpreted by many Sufi brotherhoods. Heroic sport is a fascinating melting pot of many ancient and more recent Iranian traditions, reinterpreted and revalued over the centuries. This sport underwent a revival during the Qadjar dynasty, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century during the reign of Nassereddin Shah. The figure of the ancient hero was then updated according to the requirements of the society of the time, and many zurkhaneh opened their doors in Tehran and in many cities of the country. Wrestling competitions were regularly organized between different zurkhaneh and the ruler was closely associated with these activities. He was in charge of awarding the famous "bracelet" (bandez band) to the winner of the competition, who became a kind of national hero until the following year.

Traditional sports underwent a certain decline under the Pahlavi dynasty, especially under the influence of the modernizing push driven by Reza Shah and the parallel introduction of new Western sports in Iran, which provoked a certain disaffection of the new generations for these traditional sports, even if they were far from leading to their total disappearance. Reza Shah had a marked lack of interest in these sports, which he saw not only as a legacy of the Qajjar dynasty, but also as a reflection of a past to be overcome. This vision was not shared by his son Mohammad Reza, himself a sportsman, who tried to restore and encourage some traditional sports such as wrestling. He thus returned to the Qadjair tradition according to which the king handed the famous bandzou band to the official champion (pahlavan) of the country. This effort was inseparable from a political desire to both exalt Iranian nationalism and certain traditions in parallel with a deepening of the process of modernization and openness to the West.

 


The introduction of Western sport in Iran


Few detailed studies have been conducted on the gradual introduction of Western sports in Iran. As early as the nineteenth century, increased exchanges between Iran and the various European countries in the field of education called for a reconsideration of the place of physical education in Iranian society. With the founding of the modern Iranian Dar-ol-Fonoun school in 1851, foreign instructors to train the new Iranian elite insisted in particular on the importance of physical exercise. The new foreign schools founded in Iran, mainly English, American and French, also included several sports disciplines such as football and volleyball in the pupils' timetable; revolutionary change in the face of traditional schools or maktab based essentially on theoretical education where all sport was absent. Iranians who studied abroad participated extensively in the dissemination of new sports in Iran. One of the men who has contributed most to this movement is no doubt Mir-Mehdi Varzandeh, who studied physical education in Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century, a discipline that was little valued at the time in a context where Iranian students were leaving. abroad to study medicine, engineering or military sciences. Upon his return, he taught physical education in several French schools in Tehran and was then employed by the Ministry of Education, which entrusted him with the organization of the physical education program in the Iranian public schools. Acquired by Western programs, he only promoted these "new sports" in schools, making no reference or promotion of traditional Iranian sports. After the First World War, the official Swedish gymnastics program set up by Per Henrik Ling was officially adopted by Iranian schools. In general, during the first half of the twentieth century, all the physical education curricula adopted in schools in Iran were largely inspired by German, Swedish or Russian methods. This massive spread of physical education in schools did not go without the opposition of the clergy, who considered certain exercises as degrading or effeminate. The introduction of compulsory physical education in girls' schools also gave rise to important debates.

 

Wrestlers of a zurkhaneh at the time Qadjar

 

The influence of the foreign presence in Iran, the increase in the number of Iranians studying abroad and the spread of foreign schools of missionaries thus favored an unprecedented diffusion of the practice of new sports such as football, especially in through the British presence. In the oil-rich cities of southern Iran, employees of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company practiced the sport regularly and were soon imitated by the local population who gradually built their own teams. The foreign military present on site also contributed to the dissemination of these new sports. Football gradually became the symbol of a dream modernization. As early as 1919, two English residents of Tehran founded the first local football association, which shortly thereafter came under Iranian control and later became the Iranian Football Federation. After "traditional" Western sports, a new type of sport was introduced in Iran in the 1970s: the martial arts. The impetus was mainly given by one of Shah's nephews, Shahriar Shafiq, who gradually introduced these disciplines into the armed forces.

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many debates about the status of sport in society took place, with some religious considering football games and other sports competitions as a relic of the Shah's regime of creating the maximum of distractions to divert the attention of the real problems of society. Showing women, but also men in athlete uniforms in competitions broadcast on television was also the subject of controversy. Imam Khomeini finally decided on this subject in 1988 by authorizing the broadcast of sports programs on television, even if the official position varied according to the type of sports disciplines: thus, just after the Revolution, sports such as boxing or kung fu were prohibited as they could result in bodily harm, thus contradicting some Islamic principles. On the other hand, disciplines such as karate and taekwondo were widely encouraged. Sports such as horse racing were also the subject of debate: in a sense, it was the object of much disrepute as a symbol of the way of life of the Westernized bourgeois classes, hated by the revolutionaries, but also part of sports subject to particular consideration of Islamic jurisprudence. Because of its popularity among large segments of the population, including the Turkmen in the north-east of the country, it was finally allowed. In general, sports infrastructures were largely disrupted in Iran during the war against Iraq, which reduced the resources allocated by the state to various sports disciplines to a par. At the time, all the private football clubs were nationalized and the national football league dissolved. These difficult conditions favored the emergence of organized matches spontaneously in the various districts of the cities of Iran called "gol-e koutchak" or "small goal".

While Western sports practiced by Westernized elites were generally viewed with an unfavorable eye, although often tolerated, the issue of traditional Iranian sports proved much more complex to manage. One of the most significant examples is probably the zurkhaneh. For many supporters of the new regime, the zurkhaneh had a relatively negative image because of the propaganda retrieval that had been made by the Pahlavi, and more particularly by Mohammad Reza Shah. In spite of this, zurkhaneh also represented a thousand-year-old tradition with its heroic and religious values, and enjoyed an important support in the traditional classes of society, the very ones that formed the basis of the new regime. The zurhaneh were thus finally accepted and legalized, with an insistence on the need to highlight its Islamic dimension with the exaltation of values ​​of heroism and courage reminiscent of those of Imam Ali, to the detriment of its national dimension. "highlighted in the time of the Shah. Free wrestling was also encouraged by the new regime, notably through the recovery of certain great figures of this discipline at the time of the Shah as Gholamreza Takhti, wrestling champion in the 1950s and 1960s and known for his opposition to the regime of the He was considered one of the precursors and defenders of the Islamic Republic. After the gold medal won in 1989 by Ali-Reza Soleimani during the world championships in Martigny, the sport enjoyed a new impetus and was further supported by the state. It also saw the inauguration of a huge complex called "The House of Wrestling" (khaneh-ye koshti) in 1998, the same year Iran first hosted the World Wrestling Championships for the first time. the revolution. Iran also remains one of the top ranked countries in the field of wrestling, including free wrestling. However, we can only note a certain continuity in the evolution of sport in Iran, manifested by the growing presence of Western sports in Iran and especially football, which remains the most popular sport in Iran; the desire for a return to more traditional disciplines after 1978 has failed to stem this underlying trend.